Last Friday, in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins wrote that he welcomed the decision of the Scottish Qualifications Authority that they would accept text-message spellings in school examinations in “a direct challenge to the English at their most reactionary”. “The dark riders of archaism will protest and the backwoods will howl. No spell is cast as dire as spellcheck. But the champions of reason are massing north of the border and need our support,” he declares. This, he hopes, might set off some renewed interest in reforming spelling, the discussion of which “has become a no-go area, an intellectual tundra”.
Text messaging forms have their place, not least in text messages where you can only fit so many letters into your message. They exist to improve the flow of writing, as they do also in instant message conversations, to save time when using phones on which an S takes four key-presses, and to conserve space so as to get as many words as possible into those 160 character spaces. Shortenings such as the use of the letter 8 to symbolise the “ate” sound may not have been adapted from Braille, but they have been used in that medium for years, to reduce the use of letters, as Braille documents take up an awful lot of space. There are times and places for abbreviations, and standard written English is not the place to abbreviate common words.The last major English spelling reform, Jenkins informs us, was carried out by Noah Webster in the years after American independence:
When the great Noah Webster invented American spelling after independence, he left British English immured in bigotry. He chided “even well-bred people and scholars for surrendering their right of private judgment to literary governors”. To Americans, spelling reform was the sovereignty of common sense. For that reason the British treated it as foreign, vulgar and, worst of all, American.
In the rest of the article, however, Jenkins voices the usual complaints about silent consonants, unncessary vowels and multiple pronunciations of “ough”. “Every time I write cough, bough, through and thorough (not to mention write), I think of the teeming millions of students who ask their teachers: why? There is no answer. I suggest they learn American English instead.” The only difficulty is that American English has most of the same inconsistencies which frustrate learners of British English. American English is easier for some foreigners to learn probably because it lacks the flat R sound characteristic of middle-class and urban southern English, although even this exists in some American idioms. But it has its own fair share of oddities, such as pronouncing the letter T, mid-word, as a D. The “ough” variations still exist in US English. It’s still I before E, except after C. Reading over this paragraph, I can’t find a word I would have spelled differently if I were an American.
There are often good reasons why words are sometimes spelled the way they are, even if they are often historical ones. We spell doughnut that way because a doughnut is made of dough. Simple, right? To spell it “donut” is only appropriate when you desperately need to make room for more letters, but it should not be confused for proper English for the purpose of answering an academic exam question. Words which have a silent consonant or two often sound identical to a word with a different meaning (rite, without the W, being a religious practice). There are no doubt words whose spelling could be reformed without consequences worse than the present situation, but there is a simple answer teachers can give children or students who ask “why?” when struggling to learn a relatively few inconsistently-spelled English words: history. And perhaps they should actually teach them that history.
There are two separate reasons why we should resist radical spelling reforms. The first is that it risks codifying the pronunciation of English as spoken in one particular region, rather than English in general. For example, we pronounce colour as “culla” in London, while Americans tend to say “cuhlr”. Neither of them particularly resemble color or colour, both of them clinging to the tendency to spell Latin-derived words as they were spelled in Latin, rather than how they sound in English (a practice not replicated in actual Latin-derived languages such as Italian, in which letters are doubled and accents added as needed by its own speakers). However, if we were to go down the route of spelling things phonetically, we simply could not do it without making written London English incomprehensible to Americans, or even people in other parts of the British Isles. Do we leave the silent R’s in or take them out? Either way, they will only be phonetic on one side of the Atlantic. Right now, we have consistency and mutual intelligibility.
The second, more profound, reason is that it would constitute cultural vandalism on a grand scale. Learning to read and write English presently gives one access to a vast range of literature, which would have to be rendered into the new script in a huge transliteration effort, at huge cost, if future generations who learned the new writing method in primary school were to be able to read it. It is likely that some authors, who still held the copyright to their own works, would reject the new script, refuse to write in it or to allow their works to be published in it while their copyrights remained valid. Otherwise, the children would have to learn the present script as well, as “literary English”, in order to read a lot of classical English literature, which would defeat the whole object of inventing a new script.
It would thus cut off future generations of English-speakers from their history, which is usually what is intended when a language is radically reformed as Turkish was in the early 20th century. The cut-off there is such that young people cannot readily understand the early speeches of the author of those reforms, Kemal “Ataturk”. This is the equivalent of English-speakers being unable to understand the writings of the Edwardian period or Virginia Woolf, to say nothing of the classic literature of the preceding century. If we are really to go down the radical Shavian route of adopting a new alphabet, we would not only be cutting ourselves off from our past, but also from other speakers of European languages – an even more extreme cut-off than that which “Ataturk” perpetrated. If we want to know how easily such reforms could be effected in a democracy, we only need look at the German spelling reforms which were rejected by sections of the country’s press.
I’m not suggesting that there should be no reforms, simply that any reform should be incremental and not result in our being cut off from our literary heritage. Whatever might result might be dismissed as “tinkering around the edges”, but that’s all we can do if we are to avoid uprooting our entire culture. Of course, in a context where text-message language or some other colloquialism is used for literary effect in an examination, it should be rewarded rather than penalised, because it shows that the writer has insight into the situation he or she is writing about. But we should not permit such usages to be confused with proper literary English. If we are to allow academic examinations to be abandoned to such practices, then we abandon the principle that there are times and places where informality is appropriate and other times and places where it certainly is not.